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Connecting Aural Skills to “Real” (Musical) Life

Long ago, when I was a graduate student, I often assisted faculty in conducting sight-singing entrance exams for fellow graduate students. Invariably, at some point in the day, some student would come in with a preemptively-embarrassed look on their face and apologetically state, “I haven’t done this in like two years.”

Of course, what these students meant was that they hadn’t taken aural skills classes—with their attendant high-stakes sight-singing hearings—in that time. But this always bothered me, because presumably the point of sight-singing hearings is to make students better music-readers, sight-readers, and audiators, and presumably these are skills that musicians use on a regular basis in their musical lives. Yet these students seemed to consider sight-singing hearings to be completely divorced from their broader experience of being a musician.

This is somewhat similar to an experience that Gary Potter reported in 1990 in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy. In a study he conducted on the process of taking dictation, “More than half of the subjects in this study apologized for ‘being rusty’ at dictation. I had expected that professional musicians and music students, involved daily in active music performance and listening, would continue to improve at dictation after finishing formal skills training. I was wrong. I have come to the unsettling realization that, for some fine performers and teachers (including theory teachers!), dictation ability seems to have little relation to their successful musical lives” (p. 66).

Ultimately, while aural skills instructors might vary in our goals, I suspect we’d virtually all agree that these courses are oriented towards practicality. Our goal is not to build dictation-taking robots and people who can succeed in sight-singing hearings, but rather to educate musicians who can critique each others’ performances, make music effectively in groups, transcribe interesting music, and learn music quickly—musicians who use what they learn in our classes to become better at the other things that they do.

Sure, it’d be great if we could just put the responsibility on students to figure out how what we’re teaching is applicable to their other musical activities. And some students will absolutely do so. But many students—especially those in busier programs and with outside-of-school obligations to work or family competing for their attention—will not. For these students, we must demonstrate the applicability of what we teach, and invite them to apply these skills in realistic situations.

It’s probably obvious that graded dictation tests and sight-singing hearings, the classic dual core of aural skills assessment, are not particularly close to real-world scenarios. Sight reading is certainly something people do, but outside of certain audition scenarios, it’s not typically high-stakes, it’s not necessarily vocal, it’s often in an ensemble setting, and it’s usually more than 4–8 bars at a time. Dictation is even less like most things musicians do; the closest analogue is probably transcription, as practiced primarily by arrangers and jazz musicians. But arrangers and jazz transcribers are usually at least partially self-motivated by their interest in the song at hand, have control of the process, and can use instruments or software playback as tools if necessary.

That’s not to say that dictation and sight-singing are irrelevant to musicianship skill building—I believe they are relevant. But I believe that the best way to invite and encourage students to bring these skills into their broader musical lives—and to see aural skills classes as connected to those lives—is to make sure we ask them to apply their skills in real-world(-ish) scenarios. This means we need to make space in our curricula for such activities.

(It’s probably obvious, but the answer to the objection, “but I already don’t have enough time to teach what I’m teaching! I can’t cut any of my material/curriculum to make time for this!” is that if students aren’t applying what we’re teaching outside of the classroom anyway, is it really worth teaching?)

Here are a few ideas that I’ve been experimenting with over the past few years.

With regard to sight reading, I’ve particularly enjoyed having students do group projects. I’ll set aside a week or two of a class, find some a cappella choral literature at an appropriate level of difficulty from our department’s choral library, and send groups of 4–8 students off to practice rooms around the building to sight-sing through these together. The structure of how the students work can be managed a number of different ways, but I’ve usually asked them to break up the class into 10-minute chunks: each 10-minute chunk is dedicated to reading through and briefly rehearsing a single short excerpt (say, 16 measures), and every 10 minutes the role of leading the “rehearsal” rotates to a new student. I like to grade these by focusing on process rather than product: students take the last 5–10 minutes of the class to reflect on what went well and what went poorly and set goals for next time, and these can be graded on thoughtfulness and/or completion. If appropriate, the students could also write peer evaluations of their music directors for the day.

I’ve had less experience doing so, but this could also be applied to individuals rather than groups. For example, an instructor could give an assignment for students to collect a bundle of music for their primary instrument that they haven’t performed before (perhaps under the guidance of their private instructor) and sight-read through this over the course of a week. In an online class, I’ve also simply given students a task (say, giving them some strategies for tuning chromatic tones, then directing them to work through a chapter of our sight-singing anthology) and let them work asynchronously/independently on this for a certain amount of time, perhaps uploading a verbal reflection or a recording of their final sight-reading excerpt to our learning management system. This is more like traditional sight-singing tasks, but it removes the unrealistic and potentially destructive high-stakes nature of being monitored at all times by an instructor. (I was nervous about doing this, but I actually got a lot of comments on student evaluations that many people felt they made more progress this way—despite a relative paucity of feedback—than with a traditional approach to sight singing.)

Dictation skills can, of course, be applied in a fairly real-world manner by assigning transcription projects. The more students get a say in what they transcribe, the more realistic these will be. This isn’t particularly innovative, and I know many instructors already do this.

Other projects don’t fit as neatly into these dictation/sight singing categories. For example, I’ve had students listen to a recording of a song and come up with a-cappella-group-style cover versions that preserve the melody, bass, and harmonic content. Other times, I’ve had students work from a jazz lead sheet from The Real Book and had them come up with a vocal jazz arrangement without notating their parts. (That works particularly well with a really self-motivated and on-the-ball group; when I’ve done that kind of project for a whole class, progress is often pretty uneven.) Once I had a group of string players learn a Haydn trio from a recording instead of a score.

While I think these kinds of real-world(-ish) projects are really important, it’s probably also useful to simply talk about outside-of-class application. (I, like many instructors, know this is important but often have to remind myself.) So, for example, when we are talking about dictation skills, it’s useful to ask the class, where do you use these outside of class? (In error detection in ensemble rehearsals, transcription, master class critiques, mimicking of master teachers’ and performers’ performances, etc.) When we tell our students that all of our sight-reading assessments will be based on vocal performances (if they are!), we should ask students why the voice might be a particularly good way to assess what we care about. (Actually, I think that asking students to do some instrumental sight reading in aural skills classes—while urging them to continue to think in solfege/scale degrees—is also a great idea.) We can also tell stories from our own experiences about how aural skills have helped us, and ask our students to reflect on times when they have used these skills (or wish they’d been able to!).

Especially if a student is struggling, one great way to get them to apply their skills outside of class is to involve their private instructor. If (say) a flute student is having a lot of trouble staying in a single key in their sight singing, I find a lot of progress can be made by having a chat with their flute teacher and encouraging them to sing some of what they’re playing in lessons, perhaps on solfege.

Do you have other ideas for how to get students making connections between what they do in aural skills classes and in their broader musical lives? If so, I’d love if you’d share your ideas in the comments!


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